Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Okay, Let’s Talk Subverted Expectations

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This final season of Game of Thrones has been shocking. Not shocking in the ‘Ned still gets executed despite him being a major protagonist’ sense, but shocking in the ‘Arya teleported across the continent, stole a face we’ve never seen, ground up two men and baked them into pies, and then revealed herself to Lord Frey’ kind of way. We certainly had no way of predicting the unceremonious end to the threat of the Undead, or Dany’s complete heel-turn into someone who will roast innocents for the hell of it, but that is because we were either given incomplete information, or we were told the opposite thing would happen repeatedly. Think the scripting of Littlefinger’s trial last year.

If you think I’m being unfair in how I’m characterizing anything, just look at how showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss talk about their choice to have Arya be the one to kill the Night’s King:

Benioff: For—ah god, I think it’s probably 3 years now or something—we’ve known that it was going to be Arya who delivers that fatal blow.
Weiss: She seemed like the best candidate provided we weren’t thinking about her in that moment. One of the great things about having this many people you care about in a sequence together is that you can kinda pull people attentions and focus to people that they care about a lot, like Jon, and like Dany, Theon, and Bran, not to mention Tyrion and Sansa in the crypts. So you’re going all over the place with people who you’re desperately worried for, and hopefully you forget about the fact that Arya Stark ran out of that castle with the battle drums playing and going towards…some purpose. We don’t know what until it happens.
Benioff: We hoped to kind of avoid the expected.

So yes, watching this season, I am shocked, as are many other viewers. I am also someone who has spent four years detailing the way in which Benioff and Weiss attempt to “trick” audience members with shocks…we totally secured a trademark for this phenomenon and everything!

The thing is, while this style of writing has landed during the past few seasons—or at least been tolerated because of general engagement with the greater story—it’s noticeably falling flat with audience members this year. This week’s episode even fell below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Why now? My guess is that there was still the idea that everything happening was building to a conclusion that was satisfying for these characters we’ve all spent 8 years with. That doesn’t mean a happy ending, but that there’d be a payoff for the journeys they’ve been on. That Arya and Sansa could find a sense of home again, that Bran and his mystical path would be crucial to the supernatural fight with the Undead, that Cersei would face the consequences of refusing to join in humanity’s greatest battle, that Jon’s resurrection and commitment to the threat from the Night’s King would payoff, and so on.

Oh Jon…

Instead, Season 8 has almost seemed determined to knock each character off the trajectory they were on for the sake of surprise, and there’s just no satisfaction in it from a narrative standpoint. Even at this point, there’s not a whole lot Episode 6 can do given the events of “The Bells”.

I certainly wish some of that goodwill had run out earlier with audiences for my own sanity, but it absolutely makes sense there’s legitimate Game of Thrones criticism now. It’s truly amazing to see the mass quantities of memes and “D&D” (David and Dan) jokes throughout mainstream fandom spaces.

However, with it also comes a perversion of wish fulfillment for me. As much as I’ve been delighted to see this, and happy that people finally can see the very clumsy writing that’s plagued Game of Thrones more and more each year, I can’t help but notice there’s one phrase that keeps getting tossed out: “subverted expectations.” On our latest podcast, Blaire even pointed this out as becoming a common meme in the Thrones fandom. In fact, look at any vaguely critical post in a Thrones-oriented subreddit right now, and one of the top comments is sure to be “OP subverted my expectations.”

I get where this is coming from; there are fans trying to argue in favor of this recent season by saying “this is what the show has always done; it’s surprised us.” It’s a bit hard to argue against that, since it’s fairly ineffable which surprises may violate our suspension of disbelief, and which don’t. But it’s at least becoming widely understood that shock value as a driving motivation for telling a tale, while a convenient catch-all to explain writing choices, is not one that’s going to instantly result in a good or even competent ending.

Yet there’s a balance here too. Because in my opinion, there’s a difference between purposely crafting a tale where the audience can’t guess the next steps due to missing character motivations, insight, or literal movements, versus crafting a tale that challenges an audience’s’ understanding of where a story is headed due to genre expectations.

In some ways, this is the central difference between A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin very consciously kills off characters, because he feels consequences of actions should be felt even in fantasy settings, where traditionally central characters would always feel “safe.” The books also are written in close-POV structures across a variety of characters, to really dig into the grayness of the world, our sense of morality, what redemption is, and so on.

It’d be easy to write-off the guy that pushed a 7-year-old out of a window in an attempt to hide his incestuous relationship to his sister, but then we’re plunked into his head beginning in the 3rd book of the series. Suddenly…what is it that we want for this character? What is it this character could expect given everything?

There’s certainly a traditional epic backdrop, but Martin’s tale subverts genre expectations in a thoroughly conscious way. It doesn’t mean there won’t be any elements played straight at any point, but that the way in which we tend to engage with said elements are open to examination.

That is what a subversion is. Values and principles of a system are turned on their head. In the case of media it’s not an attempt to fool the audience—Martin’s editor figured out R+L=J with the first book—but an attempt to dig into the usual narrative structures and question why they’re there.

To me, genre subversion is one of the more interesting things that can be done with a narrative. It generally paves the way for something new and potentially transformative This is why you’ll find so many articles gushing about the sequel show Avatar: The Legend of Korra, which purposely flipped the principles of Avatar: The Last Airbender on its head. We had an over-eager protagonist that was told the world didn’t need her anymore, who ended up having her connections to her past Avatar lives severed, and broke down the separation of the physical and spirit worlds by ripping open portals. Almost every set rule we had learned through Aang’s journey was questioned, and the result was one of the most meaningful I can think of in fiction.

Another example? Well, it happens to be from the movie that is currently getting tossed into every Game of Thrones expectation-subversion meme possible:

Yup, I’m talking about The Last Jedi. I am absolutely not here to re-litigate how anyone feels about it. I’ve written about where I’m coming from with my own engagement, and I know that there’s aspects that fall very short for a lot of people. However, it’s impossible to deny that the criticism aimed at this movie is dominated by a very angry, very white male group, whose complaints tend to be more in the “it ruined Luke!” direction. And this same group also complains about Rian Johnson’s subversion of expectations in The Last Jedi, as if there is a lot of similarity with Benioff and Weiss’s approach now.

Frankly, I find this confusing. The Last Jedi, at least in my opinion, didn’t have anything particularly shocking in it. There were moments that surprised me on my first viewing, such as Holdo deciding to sacrifice herself, but even that had come from her character actions earlier, and were quickly contextualized by Leia as the learning moment in Poe’s arc (however you feel about it).

I know people talk about “plot holes”, which to me can be the result of backwards shock-writing, but the biggest “hole” I can identify was Rey getting back to the Falcon after the throne room and…you know…Chewie was right there waiting for her, so he probably just picked her up. We’re not talking about Arya commandeering a kitchen in The Twins to make Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.

The Last Jedi certainly dug into the conventions of the established Star Wars franchise, though. Rey not being a secret Skywalker, though still matching the Skywalker Prince in power took on the weird focus all the films had on one family. Snoke being killed by Kylo Ren demonstrated that there’d be a final chapter without a random, poorly characterized big bad in black (at least…for a time). Luke took aim at the Jedi order, potentially paving the way for grey-force users.

For Star Wars to continue as a franchise that holds our interest, this kind of deconstruction needed to happen. We don’t need another trilogy about the chosen one from the Skywalker clan.

Which again…is the power of actually subverting genre expectations, vs. fooling an audience. I don’t see a single way in which Game of Thrones is challenging typical storytelling conventions within a fantasy setting.

You could make the argument that their resolution to the Undead plotline was a subversion, since prophecy and destiny never mattered, but frankly there has been zero emphasis on that in the first place. It was when, season 2, where Dany saw a vision of snow on the Iron Throne? Bran has been used as an exposition machine, now to drive conflict. Jon’s resurrection was never explored by his own character. Qaithe was cut out of the story after Dany’s first meeting with her, there was no Marwyn at the Citadel, and Dawn was just one of two swords Arthur Dayne held with an emoji on its pommel. It’d be a genre flip if there had been some kind of Azor Ahai prophecy in “The Long Night.”

Benioff and Weiss are certainly not subverting anything with the “mad queen” trope, especially since it’s being loosely framed as a woman spurned by a love interest. Arya is pretty much a stock-action hero, Jon is covered in 98 layers of plot armor, we are continually told how smart and important Tyrion’s brain is (he’s the smart one!), and Sansa had to tell the audience that her 80s-style rape-revenge arc made her empowered. Nothing is new or unexpected in a way that’s transformative…it’s just a poorly seeded mess with an unsatisfying conclusion.

My point in all of this is that I will happily laugh at the “subverted expectations” memes. Some of them are really quite good.

But I don’t think it’s a standard that’s being critically applied. The problem isn’t that we were surprised—it’s that it was only written with the intent to surprise, without any greater purpose beyond that.

Images courtesy of HBO and Disney


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